If you have been on Facebook recently you have likely seen that George Orwell's 1984 is on the Amazon Best Sellers list, and there have even been reports that it was sold out on Amazon. Apparently, Donald Trump's inflamed rhetoric and verbose, politically incorrect self-expression have convinced folks that he has all the makings of a totalitarian dictator. And fortunately, what people got from their high school education was that 1984 was describing a totalitarian dictatorship. What they didn't get, though, was the point.
In the appendix for 1984, Orwell develops a theory of political control that he calls Newspeak. This Newspeak is a vocabulary that limits the range of self-expression.
To Orwell’s understanding, language is a tool for internal and external dialogue. Consequently, language can also be used to limit the capacity for thought and expression in the citizens of a given society. With his conception of Newspeak in mind, Orwell writes a novel centered around a society that is in the process of limiting the chance of revolution by restricting the thoughts and speech of its citizens to only those ideas which are expedient for totalitarian control. Furthermore, this new vocabulary could be considered a positive reference language, in that it only allows its users to conceptualize ideas and express themselves in a positive manner. By these means, citizens in this society are unable to express any negative thoughts that they have regarding the dominant culture.
Functionally, this Newspeak accomplishes two ends. It limits thought to only those ideas which are prescribed by the government, and thereby, removes the threat of revolt.
This notion that totalitarian control could be achieved solely through the restriction of language, is the premise that made the book a classic. And that seems to be the one idea that everyone is failing to see.
I believe that 1984 has tremendous implications for our society, but not because of Trump's unfortuitous presidency. 1984’s relevance to current trends is precisely related to our use of language. Rather, our misuse of language.
In Orwell's fictional universe, society can only process and express positive feelings that support the totalitarian rule. In present society, however, speech has become increasingly limited to negative associations. This is particularly prevalent in the political arena. Instead of language being used to control citizens by uniting them under one ideology, language is now used to control society by dividing interlocutors according to severely truncated and misrepresentative sets of political frameworks. So, instead of government fighting rebellion by limiting our ability to respond to the government, our “leaders” have limited our ability to respond to our government by creating a negative reference framework which pits us against other portions of our society.
To accomplish this end, modern politics employees what I am calling Rhetorical Binaries (see appendix). A Rhetorical Binary is any phrase or word that categorically differentiates an action or criticism by an individual against a particular sub-group as representative of the individual’s negative attitude toward that subgroup as a whole. In the same vein as Newspeak, the Rhetorical Binary functions by narrowing the scope of discussion such that a conversation is void of all nuance. The purpose of this narrowing is directly related to its political expedience. A quote I read
recently, comes to mind when describing the political expedience of the Rhetorical Binary:
“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.” – Adolf Hitler
To make this concept more tangible, let's look at two examples of what I would consider a Rhetorical Binary:
“Racist” and “Socialist”
Let us consider "racist" first. It is an unfortunate truth that many of those living in impoverished circumstances are people of color. Some of those circumstances are inflicted by the dominant culture, and some of them are self-inflicted. However, in our current political climate, these difference cannot be delineated because the term "Racist" can be used at any point, in any conversation, to undermine the objective critique of someone trying to assess the situation.
Second, “Socialist”. The term socialist is often employed as a negative reference to undermine the rightful concern of someone who is interested in helping support the less fortunate. It is not the case, however, that someone who wants to help the poor is necessarily a socialist. There are many reasons why one would want to help the less fortunate that have nothing to do with socialist ideals.
In both of these instances, productive conversation is immediately shut down in favor of political expedience. Instead of seeking to understand one another, we employee political rhetoric that unduly removes any nuance from the conversation. And it is at this point, that the status quo is maintained and a successful totalitarian rule has been established. Instead of dialoguing toward a solution that creates a better circumstance for everyone, we play right into the hands of political demagogues who have conditioned our speech to represent only those thoughts and ideas which are expedient for their own political agendas.
"The greatest difficulty facing the compilers of the Newspeak Dictionary was not to invent new words, but, having invented them, to make sure what they meant: to make sure, that is to say, what ranges of words they cancelled by their existence." George Orwell; 1984
Rhetorical binary is a derivative of a number of different interdisciplinary fields of thought. The following is a brief list of those fields and their explanations.
Orwellian Newspeak is a totalitarian control mechanism that uses positive reference language to achieve its ends. In this conception, language is narrowed to a point where all nuance is removed from conversation. In this framework language is also understood to be a tool for thinking. Meaning that language is used to develop and formalize thought. Because of this, it is believed that without the tools to formulate a thought it is impossible for an individual to conceptualize certain ideas and concepts. Without the words to think a thought cannot be thought.
Another area that influences the rhetorical binary is the fallacy of a false Dichotomy. A false dichotomy is a logical fallacy that is used to give an opponent in a debate a choice between only two options when, in fact, more options are actually available.
Factionalism is a concept in political science/anthropology that argues that current forms of government use factions to leverage political control.